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Time out of mind

Q From P J Gilder: I have been unable to satisfy myself about the origin of the phrase time out of mind despite the fact I keep using it. I know it is C19th but where did it originate?

A You may be surprised to hear that it’s much older than that.

It’s first recorded from the British Rolls of Parliament in 1414 and in 1432 in the modern form. The second example refers to a petition by the inhabitants of the little fishing port of Lymington in Hampshire and says (in modernised spelling): “That through time out of mind there were wont many diverse ships to come in to the said haven”.

It is almost identical in meaning to another phrase from time immemorial. Both may be variant versions of beyond legal memory, which refers to the year 1189, fixed by a statute in 1275 as being the oldest date that English law can take account of.

By the time Edmund Burke was writing, in 1782, the phrase had pretty well become a cliché: “Our constitution is a prescriptive constitution; it is a constitution, whose sole authority is, that it has existed time out of mind”.

Page created 31 Mar. 2001

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Last modified: 31 March 2001.